Opaque Process Keeps Senators in the Dark
The process by which Senate Republicans allocate committee seats at the beginning of each Congress lacks transparency and is centralized under their floor leader. This opacity limits Republicans’ ability to make collective decisions regarding their committee rosters. It also complicates their ability to assess the floor leader’s job in creating committees best suited to advancing Republicans’ collective agenda. Republicans can overcome these challenges by changing their conference rules.
The rules of the Senate Republican Conference establish the process by which its members are assigned to committees. Specifically, Rule V states:
A Committee on Committees shall be appointed at the beginning of each Congress to prepare and recommend to the Conference the complete assignments of Republican Senators to committees listed in Senate Rule XXV, paragraph 2, and the Committee on Rules and Administration, and shall recommend the filling of vacancies occurring during the Congress. All other committee assignments shall be made by the Floor Leader unless otherwise specified by law. The Committee shall be appointed by the Chairman of the Conference immediately after his election, subject to confirmation by the Conference.
Senate Rule XXV divides the institution’s committees into three categories: A, B, and C. Senate Rule XXV, paragraph 2 lists so-called “A” committees. They are,
Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry
Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs
Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Energy and Natural Resources
Environment and Public Works
Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions
Senate Rule XXV paragraphs 3(a) and (b) list so-called "B" committees. They are,
Joint Economic Committee
Rules and Administration
Small Business and Entrepreneurship
Senate Rule XXV, paragraph 3(c) lists so-called “C” committees. They are,
Joint Committee on Taxation
Theory & Practice
Senate Republicans have adopted a hybrid approach to allocating open committee seats. They follow the principle of seniority to allocate half of all the seats on A committees. The Republican floor leader allocates all remaining seats.
Technically, the Committee on Committees assigns members to all A committees (see Senate Rule XXV, paragraph 2 above) as well as to the Committee on Rules and Administration (see Senate Rule XXV, paragraph 3(a) above). Pursuant to Rule V, all other B and C committee assignments (see Senate Rule XXV, paragraphs 3(a)-(c) above) are determined by the floor leader. Rule V also stipulates that the floor leader also has “the authority to appoint half of all vacancies of each ‘A’ committee, and where there are an odd number of vacancies the Leader appoints half plus one of all vacancies.”
In theory, the Republican conference chair appoints the members of the Committee on Committees immediately after his or her election by the conference. But the conference rules do not require Republicans to approve the members picked by the conference chair to serve on the Committee on Committees. Rule V instead states, somewhat ambiguously, that they are merely "subject to confirmation by the Conference."
In practice, today’s Committee on Committees is a mechanism by which the Republican floor leader and his staff manage the process by which senators request, and receive, their committee assignments (regardless of whether they do so according to seniority/Committee on Committees or by leader appointment). To the extent that the Committee on Committees does “prepare and recommend to the Conference the complete assignments of Republican Senators” to the A committees under its purview, it does so only after the floor leader has received members’ requested assignments, completed his internal decision-making process, and allocated all available seats.
Republicans’ hybrid approach to allocating committee seats makes it hard to hold their floor leader accountable for the specific assignments he makes. Senators have no way of knowing with certainty if a colleague received his or her A committee assignment due to seniority or by leader appointment. Moreover, the lack of conference involvement in selecting the Committee on Committees, coupled with the floor leader’s internal process, means that there is no collective discussion, much less clear understanding, of the leader’s rationale in determining who serves on what committee. This opacity makes it harder for rank-and-file Republicans to hold their floor leader accountable for the decisions he makes when doling out committee assignments.
Potential Reform Options
Republicans can change their conference rules after next week’s elections to direct their Committee on Committees to distribute members’ committee requests (customarily submitted to the floor leader and his staff) to the conference along with a brief description of the reasons for each assignment. Doing so promotes transparency by allowing Republicans to compare their colleagues’ specific committee requests with the final roster. This reform would not alter the floor leader’s ability to allocate committee seats. It merely provides the Republican rank-and-file with additional information as to the demand for the committee seats they are requesting so that they can adequately assess their leader's decisions. Under current practice, the only people who consistently have all of this information are the floor leader, the chair of the Committee on Committees, and the Staff Secretary for Republicans (i.e., the secretary for the majority/minority).
Rule V (as amended; new text in bold)
A Committee on Committees shall be appointed at the beginning of each Congress. It shall prepare and recommend to the Conference the committee assignments requested by Republican Senators and the complete assignments of Republican Senators to committees listed in Rule XXV…”
Republicans can also change their conference rules rules to treat B committees (and C committees) in the same manner as all A committees. Harmonizing the committee assignment process for all of the Senate’s committees would simplify the process considerably. If adopted, the reform would allow the floor leader to fill half of all open seats on B committees instead of all open seats.
Rule V (as amended; new text in bold)
A Committee on Committees shall be appointed at the beginning of each Congress to prepare and recommend to the Conference the complete assignments of Republican Senators to committees listed in Rule XXV, paragraphs 2 and 3, of the Standing Rules of the Senate…. Effective in the 116th Congress, all Republican Conference members shall be offered two “A” committee slots and one “B” committee slot in order of seniority. Each member may retain only two “A” committee assignments and one “B” committee assignment from the previous Congress.